A growing number of imbibers think Van Drastic vodka, crafted in a microdistillery in Cedar Grove, is fantastically good
The irony of establishing a distillery in Cedar Grove, a place with a reputation as a teetotaling community, isn’t lost on Grant Van Driest.
“That’s part of the appeal,” said Van Driest, who makes Van Drastic Vodka at a distillery outside the rural Cedar Grove home he grew up in and lives in today with his young family.
His company logo also hearkens back to the community’s Dutch heritage, incorporating a small windmill.
Van Driest’s distillery is a small operation — the only one in Sheboygan County and one of only 30 in the state — that’s in tune with today’s trend toward artisinal beverages and slow foods.
“I might have gotten into this at the right time,” Van Driest said.
Van Driest, who was a sixth-grade math teacher in Sheboygan for 13 years before opening his distillery, said he started out as a wine-maker — a frustrated one.
“I’m too impatient,” he said, noting it takes at least six months and often longer to make a good bottle of wine. “That’s what I was struggling with.”
So he turned to vodka, his spirit of choice when imbibing, which he said only takes a week to produce.
Van Driest started his distillery in 2011, the year he got his still, and began playing with the formula. He was largely self-taught, learning the craft by reading everything he could about making the spirit online and trying to figure things out.
His brother-in-law Russ Ambrose, a physician, helped him with the science behind the process, Van Driest said.
“He put me on the right path,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
It took about a year before he got “a really good taste, which is no taste,” Van Driest said. “You don’t want bite. You want it to be smooth.”
Whenever he had friends over, he said, he would bring them down to the bar in his home, where the shelves are lined with 52 different types of vodka, and conduct blind taste tests.
“At first, it was terrible,” Van Driest said. “It tasted more like tequila.”
But as he tinkered with the formula and learned more about the process, it got better until finally his friends gave it their blessing in the tests.
Van Driest experimented with a variety of ingredients along the way, he said.
“I started with potatoes,” he said. “I tried a lot of things, like apples. I even tried tomatoes — terrible. I tried a lot of different blends.”Van Drastic Vodka is made of a few simple ingredients, chief among them flaked wheat, malt and water with a secret ingredient or two thrown in.
“It’s important to use good quality water,” Van Driest said, or it can throw the taste off. He initially used well water, but the vodka it produced wasn’t too tasty.
Van Driest makes a mash with his ingredients and distills it to produce the alcohol.
“When it comes out, it’s 95% alcohol,” he said. “You add water to bring it to 40% alcohol.”
Van Driest throws out the beginning and end of each batch, using only the middle for his vodka. Knowing what portion of each batch to use, he said, is key in making a good vodka.
Each batch is distilled three times and then filtered 10 times to refine the taste. It takes about a week in total, with roughly five days needed for distillation and one or two for filtration.
Each batch makes about two cases of vodka.
Van Driest originally called his vodka Responsibly, a take on the phrase “drink responsibly,” and bottled it in a relatively inexpensive container. But, Van Driest said, no one quite understood the name and they often forgot it.
When Van Driest got serious about making vodka as a business, he changed the name to Van Drastic — the same name as his corporation and the name he originally used on the wine he made.
“People loved the name,” he said.
Van Driest updated the bottle as well, spending a little more on a vessel that reflects the class of his vodka. Each 750-milliliter bottle features an abstract painting etched around the bottom. The painting will change annually.
This year, the painting is “Blue Room,” done by Van Driest. Next year’s label will feature “Birth of a Planet,” an abstract painting done by Van Driest’s wife Sally, an art teacher in Sheboygan.
“Until I got a fancy bottle, it really wasn’t a business to me,” Van Driest said. “It was more of a hobby.”
Getting into the distilling business isn’t for the faint of heart. In addition to the time he spent crafting his vodka, Van Driest said it took him three years to get the necessary permits from the state and federal governments.
“The rules and regulations in this business are insane,” he said. “It’s crazy the amount of paperwork you have to do. It’s very government-regulated.”
Then there was the issue of finding a distributor.
“Distributors don’t want to carry little names like me,” Van Driest said.
In May, Lee Beverages in Oshkosh agreed to handle his vodka in its area, which includes Sheboygan County. And last month, Philly’s Premium Beverages of Grafton began distributing it in the metro Milwaukee area, including a number of Ozaukee County marketplaces, bars and restaurants.
The vodka retails for about $25 a bottle.
Van Driest points with pride to a recent taste testing done at Martini Pete’s in Grafton, where the staff told him his vodka beat all the others, including the big names known worldwide.
Van Driest has big plans for his brand. He’s working on a recipe booklet of drinks that can be made with his vodka and hopes to open a tasting room/art gallery on his property.
“That’s my big goal,” Van Driest said. “If things go well, I’ll go ahead and do it by 2017, hopefully. It would be nice.”
Checking out the perfect clarity of his vodka was Grant Van Driest, who makes his Van Drastic Vodka at his rural Cedar Grove home. Photo by Sam Arendt